You’re always the oldest you’ve ever been. I was certainly that way when I discovered John Fahey’s The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. And I discovered it many times. Some records orbit your turntable, while some records orbit you. The aura and mystique of some dissipate while with others it grows like the jasmine in August. Nearly every time I hear The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death is the first time.
You can hear his voice only once, as many have observed of the 1965 homemade recording. Briefly, as he hushes the dog that had been lying, silently at his feet for the better part of an hour. It is through these hanging, lazy ears that we hear Fahey. And just at the moment where this audience – at home, or laying on the porch beside him – is overcome, impassioned enough to interrupt he silences us. He asks us to to hold out just a few measure longer. It will be over. He’ll be through. What will come next? “Ssshhhh” he says.
By the time John Fahey made his first tapes, he had amassed an awful lot of paper behind him. Growing up outside of Washington, D.C. in Takoma – the namesake of his DIY record label decades ahead of Dischord – Fahey discovered the guitar, record collecting, and musicology all around the same time in the mid 1950’s. His fascinations idiosyncratically blossomed.
Fahey studied, deconstructed, and combined the musics of early 20th century folk, pop, and avant-garde. He published still cited papers on blues legend Charlie Patton. He tracked down and recorded delta slide legend Bukka White. So deeply, esoterically, fascinated with the american folk and blues of the turn of the century Fahey surrendered to it. He invented, and secretly dropped into shops, records by a bluesmen all his own. Blind Joe Death.
As Blind Joe Death, Fahey could record his homespun blues, subverting the traditions of the music just enough to surprise casual listeners. And just enough to tip off his fellow elitists in the vanguard of the Folk Revival. But unlike the Manhattanite folksingers, John Fahey didn’t have much interest in preserving or popularizing the music. And unlike his British contemporaries, he wasn’t concerned with elevating it. Fahey seemed driven to expand it. He tinkered with it. He played it, and played with it. He took Charles Ives’ wide chromaticism and fractured folk melodies to Skip James’ tortured slide and Mississippi John Hurt’s fatherly finger style.
Fahey found that he could record his longer, avant-garde, instrumentals under his own name. He called his music ‘American Primitive’. It was tongue -in- cheek. An overly intellectual title, referring to a movements painting. It was also his statement. This music is the essence of our modal DNA. The atoms of our history that create the molecules of our culture.
Fahey appreciated the myth of the blues as much as the fact. Perhaps that’s what makes his own myth so hard distinguish. Almost everything about John Fahey requires a footnote. For a time Fahey released long playing avant-garde compositions while occasionally a new, old 78 would resurface by legendary Blind Joe Death. Fahey’s roommate, Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson, starts the liner notes to his 1965 album by saying it was recorded in 2010.
The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death is a masterpiece. The culmination of both sides of Fahey’s music. It was recorded in one evening – almost exactly as heard. It is predominantly solo guitar, but the occasional banjo or double track doesn’t surprise you. Shockingly, and to the dismay of his contemporaries, this is a pop record. The songs are mostly under 3 minutes, brimming with melodies that cradle your chest. There are few if any dissonant moments. The album is American music, as Fahey saw it. Complexly simple, joyously heartbroken, comfortingly alien, sophisticatedly minimal. Primitive.
For close to 15 years I have marveled at this music. I’ve deconstructed it myself. Hunted down records, musicians, books, anything that could shed some light on to it. And as much as the music itself has moved me, it moved countless other guitarists. Fahey’s influence on punk is simultaneously surprising and unsurprising. His use of tunings, dissonance, and fingerpicking inspired many of punk’s founding guitarists. And his methods helped form the foundations of the American DIY movement.
Some records posses an enrapturing authenticity. Some records brilliantly illuminate possibilities. Some records take you to church. And some records are The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death.